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A JAZZ JOURNEY - 1925-1994


Ken Rattenbury
Parts 1 2/3/4/5/6/7/8/9/10/11/12/13/14/Conclusion

PART III: 1941 - 1944


When one attains the time of life when one privately agonises over whether or not to buy a bunch of green bananas, a strong inclination to reminisce forces its way into the everyday routines and minutiae besetting the journeyman jazzman. As they say, distance may lend enchantment, because with the built- in selectivity of the human memory, only the good times seem to focus sharply, whereas the less attractive experiences remain, mercifully, quite blurred at the edges. So this should be, I reckon; no real bonus in raking over the infertile, scrubby ground; infinitely preferable, surely, to settle for the brighter bits.

Like buying my first trumpet, back in 1940. It cost me £6, including its case. By now, I suppose, it would class as a museum piece - very wide, almost straddled in build, since it was acquired from a retiring member of one of those fairly ubiquitous Silver Prize Bands which fairly over-populated the Eastern Counties around that era. It had no mouthpiece - an obvious and serious deficiency which I soon rectified by calling at a little music shop in Lincoln.

There were two in stock; a Rudy Muck 13C and a patent, I believe locally manufactured job, called - if I recall it rightly - the Tompkins Triumph Triple-Ring Model (guaranteed, it boasted on its box, to make those high notes come easy! Come off it - practise is the only way, isn't it?) The first one cost twenty-five shillings (125p new money) and the second was, on account of, I suppose, its avowed magical properties, twenty-six and sixpence. So, exercising somewhat uncharacteristic acumen, I settled for the first one. And now, fifty-one years later, I'm still using it, the self-same twenty-five bob's-worth. I do own a duplicate for when the original is in for replating - but, in spite of it having the same reference number, it's as different as chalk from cheese and I can't wait, ever, to get the old one back. Does every trumpetman have the same experience, I wonder? (I have a friend who owns at least fifty mouthpieces - carries them around from gig to gig in a bag - collects more as time goes on, can't make his mind up which one, or which half-dozen suits him best at any given time. Dear me!)

But to me, that incipiently archaic horn was The Most Beautiful Object In The World. And, just as I was getting proficient enough to manage the odd, tentative note or so above the range of the treble stave, I had to swap tuxedo for battledress.

Talk about a cold shower! Shirts and collars like coarse-grained sandpaper, boots like barges, seemingly ballasted with a layer of sharp, jagged rocks. So, unavoidably at this time, "T.M.B.O.I.T.W." stayed at home; lip disintegrated, it seemed to me, in a matter of hours. Total despair. Then, by fortuitous chance, I was temporarily attached, in a semi-clerical capacity, to our battalion's Quarter Master's Stores, wherein - a major miracle! - I exhumed A TRUMPET . . . green as the aforementioned bananas, valves glued immobile, after corrosion and neglect, every tube and pipe displaying daunting dents and sticking out at alarming angles - seemed to be a total write-off. But no - a wizard of repair, one of our own swaddies, blew out all the craters, polished the valves into sweet submission, plated it silver and handed it back to me in a fortnight, for the price of a few packets of Army Issue cigarettes. Genius on the cheap, for sure, but much appreciated. Sheer bliss for me!

Eventually, I was posted to Leith, near Edinburgh and soon found a piano job in a nightclub in Princes Street (jazzers being mighty thin on the ground just then!) - the Havana. The band was led by a brilliant swing fiddle player, the late George Adam and included at one time the splendid Henry Mackenzie on reeds (still blowing brilliantly in London) and the late and great trumpetman, Freddy Clayton. Believe me, it was some band and taught me a lot and that's understating the influence and company exerted on my playing. We performed nightly from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. - an exacting schedule, since I was on parade at 7 a.m. daily, but what a conservatory! The while, practising the horn like mad in the Army's time. I eventually had to relinquish the Havana job, through sheer exhaustion, moving, this time on trumpet, to a speakeasy to end all speakeasies (location withheld to protect the guilty!) This was a dancing haunt in the oldest of traditions, with an overtly spicy clientele and much to engage those baser instincts, if you let them intrude.... But, what an atmosphere! In there, the blues sounded like the blues should: I reckon the place was Preservation Hall transplanted and personified. Don't think it's there any more. I spent one very happy year in this cosy, gutbucket environment, six nights a week, but all coming to an abrupt stop with a posting down South.

There, I joined a big Army danceband - sort of, led by and arranged for by a commissioned gentleman who, in civilian days had been a pianist/M.D. at the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne for several years. An Eddie Duchin follower, very pretty, not exceptionally jazzy - but what an all-rounder. Due, I suppose, to the chronic dearth of brassmen, I was installed as first trumpet. In this capacity, I never did make the top D in that infamous ascending coda to "ln The Mood", in spite of the offer of a half-crown from the MD every time I made it. I never collected once. Ashamed to admit that the second trumpet, in all other areas a somewhat erratic performer, had to step in and insinuate those last five daunting notes on my behalf. Happily, things soon improved . . . .

I'm dwelling on these few wartime years in some detail, since, for me, they were ultra-formative and keenly challenging. You see, the scintillating professionalism in Edinburgh's Havana Club, sort of lit the fuse. I had no delusions as to the time it would take me to approach their collective brilliance - but there was the bench mark . . there was the goal. What did I emerge from this period with, then? An awareness, which deepened swiftly into a conviction, thence to a total way of life - the plain truth that jazz music, seriously practised, represented the ultimate challenge to a musician; that there were no horizons, no limits on the possibilities of creative, fresh endeavour - and, above all, the reward stemming from intense, sustained satisfaction to be experienced during those special, totally unannounced sessions when everything went so right with the band and you felt on top of the world.

There were many more mileposts to appear in the last two years of my travels overseas and much more and infinitely varied music to be listened to and performed during those strange, sometimes threatening times which led up to the end of the Second Word War . . . . . . But, back briefly to that bunch of green bananas; yes, I reckon I'll still risk investing!! Seems very little point in doing otherwise!

Copyright Ken Rattenbury © 1994